It had been over a decade since I resigned as a school psychologist at a local public school. It wasn't an easy decision, having struggled to earn my post-graduate degree and license by attending night school for seven years, while simultaneously juggling the birth of my two children and running my own business. But as soon as I viewed an episode of the NBC hit family series, Parenthood, I readily remembered why. Recalling how I had been required to classify each special-needs student according to one of only three acceptable diagnoses, even when none of these were appropriate, angered and dismayed the parents to such an extreme that I decided I could not be a part of a school system that provided their children with little or no help.
So, as I watched Christina Braverman, a lead actor on Parenthood, make the bold decision to start her own school to help her son, Max, who has Asperger's Syndrome, it made perfect sense. Throughout the television season, it became increasingly clear that none of the city's public or private schools could sufficiently nurture Max's academic gifts (which were above average), while supporting his social challenges. Individuals with Asperger's Syndrome are primarily characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. These individuals, however, also tend to possess very high intelligence.
But if you think being bold enough to launch a successful school of your own can only happen on television, think again. Dr. Kimberly Busi, a NYC-based psychiatrist and mom to a 13-year-old "twice exceptional" (the term to describe being gifted with special needs) son with Asperger's Disorder, has become a real-life Ms. Braverman. Dr. Busi took matters into her own hands two years ago by leaving behind an academic appointment at NYU School of Medicine to found and direct The Quad Preparatory School in lower Manhattan. Quad Prep, an alternative college preparatory school for twice exceptional children, will open its doors in September, 2014, after a successful pilot year. "Ask parents of a twice exceptional child what their biggest challenge is and they will say, 'school'," Dr. Busi says.
They are constantly forced to make what feels like an impossible choice: Do I try to keep my child in a traditional setting which will nurture his many intellectual gifts, or do I move him to a special education setting, where he may have more supports, but where gifts and talents languish, at best? For most, neither is an acceptable choice.
She has, in fact, witnessed numerous times when the current educational choices failed other twice exceptional children, causing parents to become terrified about their children's future.
The biggest problem is that traditional learning environments, all classroom-based, are not flexible enough to meet the needs of these children. Coupled with the lack of specific, evidence-based interventions in social learning disorder and executive functioning, these children are becoming increasingly anxious, isolated and academically disengaged, even in the best special education classrooms.
And since starting The Quad, it's more than just the students whose learning has increased. Dr. Busi, herself, says she has learned a great deal, including that most of the innovative programs for special needs kids are most often spearheaded by parents.
I met a lawyer who left a white-shoe firm to represent parents fighting for a fair education for their children. I met an investment banker who left her position to launch a foundation to promote inclusion in Fortune 500 companies for twice exceptional adults. And I met a former stay-at-home mom who founded the largest advocacy center for families in New York City. The list goes on and on.
Further, she has also learned that these endeavors are almost guaranteed to succeed.
If you ever want to see what sheer determination can accomplish, come visit one of The Quad programs. When faced with obstacles, we all know that failure is not an option. We make it work. And work it does!
And it's due to parents like Dr. Busi that the awareness and validation for Asperger's Disorder have been raised to a higher level than through any other medium. Additionally, their work is empowering other parents to continue to create what currently doesn't exist. "These are children who have the gifts and abilities to change the world," Dr. Busi says. "And now they will finally have the right kind of learning environment to foster their true potential."
Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is an Educational Psychologist and publisher of Work Life Matters magazine.